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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Berkeley physician treats the wounds – medical and psychological – inflicted by Hurricane Katrina

– Dr. Ameena Ahmed didn't hesitate a minute when the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals put out an urgent call for physicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On Monday, Sept. 5, the lecturer in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program headed to the Gulf Coast.

For the next week, she provided medical care and counseling at places including the New Orleans Convention Center parking lot, a makeshift clinic in a motel breakfast room, and rural churches where every pew had become a bed. Lacerations, foot infections and people without their vital, daily medications were common.

But it was the victims' precarious mental health that most troubled Ahmed and prompted her to action.

Dr. Ahmeen Ahmed with fellow doctor in evacuation shelter
Dr. Ameena Ahmed with fellow volunteer Dr. Eric Peterson, a pediatrician from Iowa, pose at the Lamar Dixon shelter in Gonzales, LA, where 1,700 evacuees coexisted in a single room.

"The stories I heard were just amazing," she said. "One of the most shocking things was realizing that I heard only a few dozen of the hundreds of thousands of stories. People had lost all their possessions, didn't know if they still had any family, didn't know if their children had survived and, if so, where they were."

Still others, she said, had suffered psychologically from lootings and attacks. In the New Orleans Convention Center, she said, people were "living without adequate food and water and with the stink of sewage and armed bandits running through and shooting and raping people, and then they were put on buses and shipped off. They'll bear a tremendous psychological burden in the months and years to come."

It was Ahmed's experience as medical director of Survivors International, a San Francisco-based non-governmental organization that works with torture survivors around the world, that helped her understand the mental anguish in Louisiana. The group does forensic medical and psychological evaluations and provides ongoing therapy and counseling to those who have been tortured for reasons including ethnicity, gender or political beliefs.

"In the case of Katrina, some of the people's responses were similar – shock, lack of trust in people or in God, a tremendous sense of loss, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks. It doesn't matter whether it's a natural disaster or human-inflicted trauma. I could apply the same skills," said Ahmed.

Dispatched for a few days to the small town of Donaldsonville, LA, near Baton Rouge, Ahmed and another doctor and nurse were the first help to arrive, ahead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross. The place was swarming with people who'd fled New Orleans before the hurricane arrived and mistakenly thought they'd only need shelter for a few days.

"More than anything, there was so much desperation on people's faces. We set up an impromptu clinic in the breakfast room of a Best Western motel. Many people were having trouble sleeping, or wanted us to check their blood pressure," she said.

There, Ahmed met a 36-year-old woman who escaped the flooding with her mother – and without money or her cell phone, which contained the numbers of family members across the country. After making sure Ahmed had examined her mother, the woman returned to talk about her despair.

"She told me, 'I've never accepted a penny from anyone in my whole life, I've never taken food stamps. Now I don't know what I'm going to do – I have no money and no place to go. And that cell phone was my phone book. My family is scattered across the country, I have no way to reach them,' " said Ahmed. "The last thing she said was, 'I've never before lost my faith in God.' That was the one thing she held central in her life, and now that was gone."

In Walker, another small Louisiana town, Ahmed was asked to help a distraught man wandering about, looking for his birds. "The birds he'd raised had been in a cage, and he was sure they'd drowned," she said. "I helped talk him down. He was bi-polar and hadn't had his medicine. This was a common situation. We carried some medicines with us, but I convinced him to go with the sheriff and get in an ambulance to a hospital about 20 minutes away."

At the Lamar Dixon shelter in Gonzales, LA, where 1,700 people were sleeping under the same roof, "the scope of loss was tremendous," Ahmed said. There, she met neighbors who had escaped the flooding together – old, young, sick, injured – and were living in small groups, trying to take care of each other. One woman was struggling to watch over an elderly man she called 'Mr. Moses,' a neighbor of hers who had dementia and was now stricken with swollen feet.

Ahmed said the woman told her, "We left for Alabama, and Mr. Moses wanted to stay put. But then we heard the water was rising, so we came back for him.'"

"I heard story after story like that – people caring for neighbors, people pulling together and forming communities," said Ahmed.

While the acute medical needs in the region impacted by the hurricane will subside, and people will begin reestablishing their lives, "mental health is a different bag," said Ahmed. "No one really knows how big the impact of Katrina will be on mental health … it will vary from individual to individual. The things that are going to help mental health immediately are having privacy, your own home, regaining control over what you eat and when you sleep. These are the things we take for granted."

Back on campus, Ahmed said she went to the Gulf Coast in part because "it's important for those of us who are teaching the next generation of physicians to teach by example. Medicine isn't all ivory tower." She plans to share as much of her experience there as possible with the graduate students she teaches in the Joint Medical Program, which is within the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

She added that she's lucky to belong to a community of UC Berkeley students and faculty who are "committed to serving the underserved."

Ahmed said that just one week in the hurricane zone was "transforming."

"It's changed how I think about medicine," she said. "It's really made me very thankful for what I have to give to other people. And thankful for things I take for granted – my life and health, knowing where my family is, a big apartment full of my things, my car parked outside, a job and money in the bank and a plan for what to do."